In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Medieval Literature

  • Introduction
  • Classical Piyyut
  • The Islamic East
  • Northern France, Germany, and England

Jewish Studies Medieval Literature
Jonathan Decter
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 August 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0031


Most of this bibliographic digest is dedicated to the field of medieval Hebrew literature (poetry and literary prose), with some limited attention to Jewish writing in languages other than Hebrew and the representation of Jews in non-Jewish literature toward the end of the piece. With respect to medieval Hebrew literature, following a brief discussion of general and historiographic overviews, materials are organized according to chronology and geographic area. English translations and Hebrew editions/anthologies are included in the respective sections. Regarding secondary works, priority is given to those available in English, while indispensible works in other languages, primarily Hebrew, are also included. In many cases, a brief English article will lead the reader to numerous works in Hebrew by the same author. Like other fields of Jewish studies, the modern study of medieval Hebrew literature—liturgical and nonliturgical—was founded in western Europe during the 19th century. Early scholars were dedicated to the collection, editing, and systematic publication of texts culled from prayer books and manuscripts preserved in European libraries and within Jewish communities. The field of medieval Hebrew literature has encompassed the piyyut (liturgical poetry) of Byzantine Palestine, the liturgical and nonliturgical poetry of the Islamic world (Iraq, Egypt, North Africa, al-Andalus) and medieval Latin Christendom (Christian Iberia, Provence, Northern France and Germany, and Italy). The systematic study of the documents of the Cairo Genizah, beginning toward the end of the 19th century, greatly expanded the corpus of known materials and revolutionized the field. There are few English works that aim to address the whole of medieval Hebrew literature. Spiegel 1970 is a classic essay that offers such an overview; Carmi 1981 is a fine anthology with historical contextualization. Pagis 1979 and Rosen and Yassif 2002 address scholarly trends from philological approaches to more contemporary literary methods.

  • Carmi, T., ed. The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse. New York: Penguin, 1981.

    Anthology of Hebrew poetry from ancient to modern times with parallel English translations. Of relevance are Parts 1 and 2, which include selections spanning from biblical poetry through the late medieval period. Includes an overview essay on Hebrew poetics, biographical sketches of each poet, and notes on each poem.

  • Pagis, Dan. “Trends in the Study of Medieval Hebrew Literature.” AJS Review 4 (1979): 125–141.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0364009400000441

    An overview of the development of scholarship in the field of medieval Hebrew literature spanning from the 19th century through the 1970s. Addresses the limitations of methodologies and suggests approaches for future research.

  • Rosen, Tova, and Eli Yassif. “The Study of Hebrew Literature of the Middle Ages: Major Trends and Goals.” In The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies. Edited by Martin Goodman, 241–294. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    A critical survey of the development and history of modern research in the field of medieval Hebrew literature from the 19th century through the time of publication. Examines major trends in scholarship according to two disciplines in the study of medieval Hebrew literature: poetry and prose.

  • Spiegel, Shalom. “On Medieval Hebrew Poetry.” In The Jewish Expression. Edited by Judah Goldin, 174–216. New York: Bantam, 1970.

    A succinct overview of the development of medieval Hebrew poetry tracing its relationship to the Bible and piyyut. Includes discussion of the Cairo Genizah and its contribution to scholarship. Originally published in Louis Finkelstein, ed., The Jews: Their History, Culture, and Religion, Vol. 2, in 1949 (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America).

Classical Piyyut

Although the piyyut of Byzantine Palestine technically belongs to the world of Late Antiquity, it may also be seen as the starting point of literary trends that would resonate throughout the medieval period. The paucity of original poetic compositions in canonical rabbinic literature (the Talmud and the Midrash) is counterbalanced by the large amount of contemporary material composed for synagogue use. Some of this material was preserved in prayer books over the centuries, while much has come to light through the Cairo Genizah materials. Prominent authors include Yose ben Yose, Yannai, and Qallir. Until relatively recently, scholarship has been dedicated largely to the production of reliable texts with critical apparatuses. More recent works have expanded study to include form criticism and other literary topics. Lieber 2010 and Swartz and Yahalom 2005 offer readable and annotated translations of these often recondite texts as well as general introductions to the material. Fleischer 2007, Mirsky 1990, and Spiegel 1996 offer extensive information about the development of classical piyyut as well as overviews of genres and authors. Sokoloff and Yahalom 1985 addresses Aramaic piyyut. Elizur 2006, typical of the author’s work (almost exclusively available in Hebrew), addresses formal qualities of this poetry. Münz-Manor 2006 demonstrates the value of gender criticism toward this corpus.

  • Elizur, Shulamit. “The Use of Biblical Verses in Hebrew Liturgical Poetry.” In Prayers that Cite Scripture. Edited by James L. Kugel, 83–100. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Center for Jewish Studies, 2006.

    One of the few English articles by a widely published scholar of piyyut. Typical of her scholarship, this article offers painstaking attention to formal elements of classical piyyut, here focusing on intertextual techniques.

  • Fleischer, Ezra. Shirat ha-kodesh ha‘ivrit bi-yeme ha-benayim. 2d ed. Jerusalem: Magnes, 2007.

    An extensive study of the history and development of Hebrew liturgical poetry from early piyyut through the medieval period. The work is organized chronologically according to classical Palestinian, eastern Islamic, Iberian, Italian-Ashkenazi, and central European liturgical writings. Offers detailed explanations of structures of piyyut genres with samples for each genre. Originally published in 1975; the second edition contains extensive bibliographic updates and new sections.

  • Lieber, Laura. Yannai on Genesis: An Invitation to Piyyut. Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 2010.

    Complete collection of Yannai’s piyyutim, or liturgical poems, on Genesis pericopes. Yannai is one of the earliest known Hebrew poets of the Byzantine period. Lieber’s work is divided into two parts: the first comprises introductory material on the piyyut including topics such as literary technique, poetics, and theology; the second part presents Yannai’s poems, Hebrew text with facing English translation, commentary, and annotations.

  • Mirsky, Aaron. Ha-piyut: Hitpathuto be-Erets Yisra’el uva-golah. Jerusalem: Magnes, 1990.

    Comprehensive collection of essays on classical piyyut and other areas of Hebrew verse by a major scholar. Includes an important essay on the origins of piyyut and poetic sections of the Talmud.

  • Münz -Manor, Ophir. “All about Sarah: Questions of Gender in Yannai’s Poems on Sarah’s (and Abraham’s) Barrenness.” Prooftexts 26.3 (2006): 344–374.

    DOI: 10.2979/PFT.2006.26.3.344

    Applies contemporary gender and literary methodology to the study of two 6th-century poems by Yannai that explore Sarah’s barrenness. Studies the poems’ intertextual aspects and draws comparisons with Midrash (as well as the New Testament).

  • Sokoloff, Michael, and Yosef Yahalom. “Aramaic Piyyuṭim from the Byzantine Period.” Jewish Quarterly Review, n.s., 75 (1985): 309–321.

    DOI: 10.2307/1454078

    Although most surviving liturgical poems from the Byzantine period are in Hebrew, a number of poems also survive in Aramaic. This article reviews the types of texts for various holidays. The article was succeeded with a Hebrew volume by the same authors, Shirat bene ma‘arava: Shirim Aramiyim shel yehude Erets-Yisraʼel ba-tekufah ha-Bizantit (Jerusalem: ha-Akademyah ha-leʼumit ha-Yisreʼelit le-madaʻim, 1999).

  • Spiegel, Shalom. Avot ha-piyut: Mekorot u-mehkarim le-toledot ha-piyut be-Erets Yisra’el. Edited by Menahem Schmelzer. New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1996.

    A posthumous collection representing the work of a major scholar in the field. Includes English and Hebrew introductions, scholarly editions of twenty-nine poems, and two monograph essays. Given that Spiegel died in 1984, several subjects were superseded in works by scholars such as Fleischer, Yahalom, and Elizur prior to the publication of the volume in 1996. Still, his commentaries on poems are more extensive than one generally finds in later editions.

  • Swartz, Michael D., and Joseph Yahalom, eds. and trans. Avodah: An Anthology of Ancient Poetry for Yom Kippur. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005.

    A new edition of early piyyutim that constitute the Avodah service, recited on Yom Kippur. Includes an introduction with notes on the historical and literary significance of this early liturgical poetry. Hebrew text with parallel English translation.

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